By Steven Siceloff,
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center
The realities of exacting, hard work required to launch a space shuttle and the sensation of anticipation meet in the firing rooms on launch day.
"It's electric," said Charlie Blackwell Thompson, chief of the NASA Test Director's Office. "You see all kinds of emotions when you're in the room."
The firing rooms are the control center for the launch team from the time a shuttle lands through its processing for flight and into its next countdown and launch. Even when a shuttle is months away from its next mission, there still is a group in one of the firing rooms overseeing its progress.
"It is kind of the nerve center of our operations," Blackwell Thompson said. "Some days it will be a very small team in there that's keeping watch over the orbiters and on launch day, the whole room is full. It involves so many different groups of people and so many different types of tasks."
"You're not going to find this anywhere else in the world," said Roberta Wyrick, an orbiter test conductor for United Space Alliance whose first mission in that role came in 1981 on STS-2, the second shuttle flight.
Launch day is what gives the firing room its aura. That's when the propellants are in the external fuel tank, the launch team has its routine most polished and when the astronauts are about to leave the planet. Although everyone involved is well-rehearsed for the countdown, launch day does not feel like a final exam, but game day, Blackwell Thompson said.
"It truly is a team," Blackwell Thompson said. "We are the Kennedy Space Center Launch Team and we all get to a successful launch together."
As a NASA Test Director, Blackwell Thompson is one of the group known as the NTDs. The excitement and camaraderie played a large part in bringing Blackwell Thompson to Kennedy as a payload systems specialist.
"I was intrigued at being a small part of that very big team," she said.
There are more than 200 people all wearing headsets and most listening to several conversations at once. Some lean in toward their computer monitors, examining rows of numbers showing them everything from propellant levels inside the external tank to temperatures inside the crew compartment.
On bookshelves around the firing room sit six volumes of binders that hold the detailed steps for countdowns, what to do if a launch is scrubbed and how to handle a planned contingency situation. A successful countdown and launch covers more than 1,600 pages.
There's very little chit-chat, and that drops fast as the countdown to a space shuttle launch nears zero.
"It doesn't matter what launch it is, nine minutes and counting, my heart's beating faster," said Wyrick.
There really is no chance to forget where the countdown stands, thanks to a row of clocks on the wall in the front of the room. The clocks keep track of the actual time, the time left in the countdown and how much time is left in a given hold. They are vital cues for the launch controllers.
"We look at those clocks a thousand times it seems during launch countdown," Blackwell Thompson said.
With its computer screens, digital countdown clocks, people on headsets and a huge angled window, the Firing Room looks like one of the most advanced places in the world anyone could work. But that's not the case. In fact, the computers at the heart of firing rooms were designed in the 1970s and operate with processors that run at 1 megahertz.
"I think from a capability and reliability standpoint, it's extremely impressive, although it is probably not characterized as advanced today based on modern technology standards," Blackwell Thompson said.
The computers onboard the space shuttle itself are 1970's vintage, too, and since they all have to talk to each other, there wasn't a way to move to new advance systems without going through time-consuming and expensive recertification and testing. Besides, 30 years of shuttle missions has ironed out any kinks in the system.
"They kept it the way it is because it works," said Gary Lewis, a launch program support test conductor, LPS for short.
Because the computer displays the controllers use require fast processors and more robust memory, there is a computer called a buffer dedicated to translating the signals going back and forth between the firing room and the shuttle.
Tapping the cabinet holding the 6-foot-tall system, Launch Processing Support lead systems engineer Carl Duncan said, "This is the miracle of the shuttle in my opinion."
The buffer is one of numerous cabinets holding servers and dedicated computer systems in a room behind the firing rooms. The thick bundles of cabling that run from the Launch Control Center to the launch pads, the tracking stations and numerous other locations all lead to the computers in the back room.
The NTDs sit on the second row at the front of the firing room, one level down from the shuttle launch director. It is their voices along with the orbiter test conductors people hear most during a countdown as they click through some 1,600 pages during the course of three days leading to liftoff.
The NTDs share the second row with Orbiter Test Conductors, OTCs.
Moving down, the third row has seats for more specialized test conductors that focus on payloads, launch support systems and the astronauts' health.
Beyond that, the floor is dominated by half a dozen horseshoe-shaped cabinets. That's where the systems specialists sit. Engineers with the deepest knowledge of individual components and systems on a shuttle are arranged by acronyms and call signs of their own.
There are teams that monitor the three main engines, there's a group for the solid rocket boosters and external tank. Life support systems specialists are represented as well as a myriad of other systems.
They advise the OTCs and NTDs when they complete a countdown step, tell the launch team when something is amiss, and converse with a specialized support squad of their own to work out issues. They can talk with people out at the launch pads, technicians at the Orbiter Processing Facility and in the Vehicle Assembly Building, tracking stations and the U.S. Air Force Eastern Range, and the Mission Control Center at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.
The team is as large as it is because the shuttle systems are enormously complex, and fixing one problem has a potential to cause other problems. So when something comes up, all the systems people involved can work through it without leaving their consoles.
"I don't think you can have one expert," Wyrick said. "I don't think you can have someone who has all the knowledge."
The people who oversee the countdown generally come out of the ranks of the specialists. Blackwell Thompson worked with payload systems before becoming an NTD and Wyrick worked with the Ground Launch Sequencer, the computer software system that controls the last 45 minutes of the countdown and launch.
"It used to take almost an hour to initialize," Wyrick said. "They've got it down pretty much to a science now and it really only takes about a half hour."
The GLS steps in at that point because things start happening too fast for humans to handle.
"The speed has to be just right," Wyrick said.
If the systems pick up a problem, say, when the main engines ignite, the GLS cancels the liftoff. People can step in, too, if they see an issue, but the sensors and GLS are a combination that can stop a main engine firing in fractions of a second.
NASA built four firing rooms as it was ramping up for the Apollo moon landings. They are arranged side-by-side inside the Launch Control Center and all face the two shuttle launch pads, 39A and 39B. All four firing rooms have been used at one time or another, and their missions as the primary firing room are marked with mission insignias on the walls.
Some have even starred in movies whenever directors were looking for a realistic setting for their liftoff scenes. "Apollo 13," Space Cowboys" and "Armageddon" were filmed in the firing rooms, often with real firing room personnel in place.
Blue metal cabinets and hard, white floors symbolized the firing rooms for more than two decades of the shuttle program. Consoles were tight fits for controllers. A desktop extended out from the screens, but there was not much room for notebooks or anything else.
"They were so small in those days, everyone smooshed together," Wyrick said. "There was enough room for a chair and that was about it."
As computer technology advanced and controllers needed more access to their office software, desktop towers and monitors were placed wherever they could find room on the consoles.
That changed when Firing Room 4, which had been a conference room at one time, was built up to support shuttle launches. Wood-toned consoles and cabinets were set up and computers were outfitted to work with both the older shuttle software and the modern programs for email and office work.
Carpeting was laid on the flooring, taking the echo effect down a few notches. Since the remodeling, that area has been the primary control room for the shuttle starting with STS-121 in July 2006. The older look still exists in Firing Rooms 2 and 3, and both still get a fair share of use.
"To me, there is a nostalgia feel to Firing Room 3," Blackwell Thompson said. "Firing Room 4 is a little quieter because of the carpeting and you have a little more room to move around."
During a shuttle countdown, two firing rooms are used on launch day. Firing Room 4 is the primary room that houses the prime launch team members monitoring the launch commit criteria and verifying the vehicle is ready to fly. Firing Room 2 supports launch with senior engineering and management personnel that are available to apply their knowledge and diverse skill sets to issues that may arise. Although Firing Room 4 is planned to be used for the remaining launches, Firing Room 3 remains launch-capable and could be used if needed.
"There's about 250 people in the primary firing room at launch time and that doesn't count Firing Room 2 which has the other systems experts, if you will, and the management and that kind of thing," Wyrick said. "That's another probably 200 people."
Although hundreds of people are involved in the firing room for countdown, only a few controllers converse with the astronauts in the shuttle. After all, the crew has its own detailed checklists to follow.
The launch director usually confines his remarks to a farewell message before the final few minutes of the countdown begin. The NTDs greet the astronauts on the comm loops when they get into their seats and plug into the shuttle's communication system.
The OTCs give a quick message to the crew seven minutes before launch, when the orbiter access arm swings away from the orbiter.
"You try to come up with something that's a little unique," Wyrick said. In the past, she's alluded to individual crew members, sometimes the historic nature of the mission. "Luckily I read a lot. I'm not ashamed to ask for help."
After launch, many of the controllers remain at their consoles to begin the critical steps to make the launch pad safe. There are a number of systems to turn off, for instance, and some areas of the pad can be sprayed down.
"If you're the one in charge of the launch, there are still things to do," Wyrick said. "It's not like it's over."
Each launch, each countdown are different, the controllers say, so they never get complacent about it or just work to get through it. That may be why so many of them work in the firing rooms for decades.
Blackwell Thompson said, "For many of us, this is our life's work."
"I liked what I was doing," Wyrick said. "Did I really think I would be here this long? No, but I think, as a team, where else could you get this opportunity?"